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Last haul

May 8, 2012

I’ve about three weeks to go. Four at the most. I’ve broken the 3am barrier, at least where I have to travel beyond Belfast. Lately I’ve been focussed on Tollymore forest, close to Newcastle, where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea. To catch my tricky blackbirds, and I count myself lucky if I get one decent one for each foray, I aim to arrive an hour before dawn. That means leaving my flat nearly an hour before that again. I’m almost on night shift. But I’m on a roll. Even when the alarm shrills at 3am, I wake up feeling excited and lucky. The fact that this is likely to be my last field season lends added impetus. Less than a month left of being paid to lope about, mike poised and ready. The worst is, I’m only now beginning to feel really on top of it. I’ve over thirty recordings of each of my main targets, blackbirds and chiffchaffs. I’ve eleven of mistle thrush, which are my back-up species, and I’m aiming to try for a few more reed buntings before the month to fill out the sample I collected last year. But no matter how I try to spin it, the end is looming, and I’ve just got really good at this! I even have my gearing up down to a fine art: bum-bag on first; then sling the recorder on, hooking the coils of its cable through the belt of the bum-bag; then sling the field loudspeaker on my other shoulder; then sling the tripod on over all that; then, hook the mini-tripod that holds the mike (for when I stand it on the ground while I’m setting up for a recording) onto the front of the bum-bag. Finally, loop the free bit of the mike cable around the back of my neck. Then I’m ready to rock.

I haven’t broken a single mike cable this season (I broke three by stepping on them, yanking them, last year). Ditto the recorder – got through two of those last year; this year, the survivor has lasted fine, so far. The sound meter’s played up a bit, but it’s turned out that it was just the battery getting low. It’s fine with a new one. The fuzzy bit is wearing out, as it is on the mike (latter’s filthy as well; what odds, only a few weeks to go). When I’m setting up, I’ve it down to a fine art, totally routinized, even to the timing of my motions to the rhythm of the singing of my target bird, so the noise of my movements doesn’t show up on the sonogram when he’s actually singing.

The chiffchaffs are beginning to get harder. They’re here a month or so now, and they’re flitting about more, or at the least the ones I’ve encountered lately are. I was in Tollymore about a week ago, and there were two of them countersinging and moving about so much I almost got confused between them. It was a perfect example of the dominant male showing who was boss by singing over the top of his rival. The less confident bird was constantly ‘interrupted’ by his neighbour and eventually he moved well back from what was presumably the border of his territory. I had started recording the diffident bird first, then I switched to the boss as the latter moved in. But the first bird kept singing even though the boss kept interrupting, and between the two of them, I knew it wouldn’t be clear on the sonogram which of them was which even though I tried making verbal identification of who was who as they duelled. It would be a visual mess, so cursing them both for not having sorted this territorial dispute out before I arrived, I had to leave them to it. Such are my operational difficulties. Honestly, there’s always politics at work.

They’re also not singing with quite the same constancy. I presume that’s mainly because pairing has occurred and the labour of bringing up the next generation has begun. And territorial patrols may have become more settled and regular. Last Sunday, again in Tollymore, I had almost finished recording a chiffchaff, when literally for the last  two minutes, he moved off. I needed those two minutes, and I could hear him still singing at a different location, a location that was off limits in terms of a stream and a thick stand of young larch. But, I’m learning their habits, so feeling like Emerson or Mary Oliver, I just sat down, leaning up against the trunk of a beech tree, and waited for him to complete his patrol. Took about fifteen minutes, but he came back to pretty much exactly the same song perch and I got those two minutes I needed.

The bluebells are out everywhere now. It’s been a strange spring though, full of early promise after the mild winter, but it’s been really fits and starts, those north-east winds blowing in at regular intervals, stopping the clock or turning it back. Canopies are only now beginning to thicken, the beech and ash have still that early spring paleness. I heard my first cuckoo only on the 3rd of May. May! I saw my first swallow on the 26th April. And the whoopers hung around till well into April. Everything feels delayed.

That Sunday (the 6th), I had returned to Belfast to beat the weather. There was dire forecast for the Monday, which was when I’d originally planned to go out. So I left home again on the Saturday evening, and came back up to avail of the promised fine weather on Sunday. Indeed it was fine. I drove through county Down under the light of a full moon and an almost clear sky. The entrance I use to the forest has three gates. The same key opens the last two padlocks. I got to the third gate and they’d changed the padlock! My key didn’t work. I was livid. I’d come back to Belfast and risen at three am for this? I could hear my blackbirds just beginning to get going. But I’d already recorded individuals near this entrance. I needed further into the forest to get new ones. Why had they changed the padlock? Why hadn’t someone told me?

I retraced my route, opening and re-locking the same gates, and drove like a bat out of hell to the main public entrance. The gates there were locked too, but at least one of my keys worked. Unfortunately those gates are huge heavy medieval yokes and one of them was practically off its hinges. When I got the jeep through, I couldn’t lift the gate back into place. Thankfully, two guys appeared out of nowhere, their beer bottles still in hand. I didn’t hesitate. I asked them to help, and they didn’t question what a frantic woman was doing breaking into Tollymore forest at 4:30am. Despite their being very much the worse for wear, between the two of them they managed to drag the recalcitrant gate more or less back to its original position. I barely gave them a glance as they staggered off, being too busy locking up and leaping into the jeep. But now I’d like to say, thanks guys.

Unfortunately the same new padlock was on the other gates leading to the main part of the forest, so I was confined. I did get a few birds, and my temper eventually wore off. I should get a new key for Thursday, but I have to go through more hoops for authorisation. Turns out, someone’s being abusing their privileges, hence the new locks. You just feel like saying, people can we all just stick to the rules? Don’t go cutting the Forest Services keys and handing them out like sweeties! They have ultimate power, and if they decide you’re up to no good they pull the plug without warning.

Anyway, hopefully I’ll get my key. Tollymore is a brilliant beautiful forest, and I’m loving getting to know it. I don’t want this to be my last report from it!

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